Future of Europe debate heats up

Occasionally, in the midst of firefighting, Europe's leaders get to reflect. A town hall meeting in Berlin, organised by the Nicolas Berggruen Institute on Governance, provided one of those opportunities to debate where Europe was heading. Some kind of political union was the answer.

There was wide acceptance that Europe needed a new narrative; it could not just sell itself on being a union for peace. Although the direction of travel is clearly towards greater integration, Europe is becoming a union with different tiers.

What was interesting was just how quickly the spotlight fell on the UK. The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, complained about Britain's "pick and mix" approach, cherry-picking what it chose to be involved with. "That," said Mr Schulz, "would unleash enormous problems".

The French Finance Minister, Pierre Moscovici, said Britain's membership "is a rather strange make-up". Soon after they joined the EU, he said, they wanted a renegotiation and a rebate. The UK has always been a bit of a special case, he said. To the question "can we still live together?" he said "yes we can".

The German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said "it goes without saying that is is better if the UK assumes greater responsibility within the EU". Mr Schaeuble said the English-speaking people was "not sufficient any longer to give the UK a great role in the world".

What was repeatedly emphasised was an unwillingness to allow Britain to obstruct and stand in the way of where others wanted to go. The UK is being served notice it cannot slow down the project. If that happens it will lead to real tension.

The belief of most of those taking part was that the nation state had reached its limit, that globalisation made necessary closer integration. The former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, said "sovereignty in the future cannot be defended on the national level but only on a European level".

Mr Schaeuble argued that only through European integration could countries retain any autonomy in a globalised world. The difficulty they face - and it was acknowledged here - is the continuing attachment to the nation state.

Much as Europe discusses its Great Leap Forward it tells you something when the financier George Soros tells the conference that he is setting up a string of "solidarity houses" in Greece to protect migrants from neo-Nazi hooligans and to provide emergency food for the poor. A reminder of how the eurozone crisis has created a new division in Europe between the creditor and debtor nations.